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Rattle in the Form of a Ball Player


Rattle in the Form of a Ball Player
Rattle in the Form of a Ball Player
6th-9th century
The John R. Van Derlip Fund

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Rattle in the Form of a Ball Player

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The Maya were a Central American people whose civilization flourished in parts of what are now Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador from 300 B.C. to the 16th century A.D. The Spaniards who arrived in the early 16th century destroyed much of Mayan elite culture during the Conquest, such as their hieroglyphic writing system, but other aspects, including their language and some folk customs, have survived to the present. The culture centered around the city of Veracruz (on the Gulf of Mexico) was within the sphere of Mayan influence but it developed a distinctive artistic style. From the Classic Veracruz period, the art and architecture of Veracruz was made up of contributions from the Huastec and Olmec peoples, and possibly contributions of the Totonac inhabitants who arrived somewhat later. Architecturally, the most important city of the Veracruz region is El Tajin, where eleven ball courts have been located.1

Photo of El Tajin

Photo of El Tajin by Dawn A. Smith

This description of a mythical ball game found in the Popol Vuh is corroborated by images found on bas-reliefs, figurines and paintings throughout Mesoamerica, where paved ball courts have been found in every region of this ancient civilization. Most ball players are similarly dressed: thick bands, or bumpers, surround the figure below the waist, and from it protrude protective or ornamental items called palmas and hachas; gloves and knee pads; and a train of feathers fixed to the back of the bumper. Eye-witness accounts written after the Spanish Conquest confirm common features of the game: the use of hands and feet was not permitted; the ball was deflected with the hips, knees, or torso. The balls were solid and heavy, weighing about five pounds and made of latex, a rubbery substance gathered from trees or bushes. The object was to strike the ball in such a way that the opponent was unable to return it, or to hit stone markers on the walls.

During the Classic Mayan period (A.D. ca. 400-800) the ball game was often played as a ritual contest ending in human sacrifice. In depictions on bas reliefs at two important sites, El Tajin and Chichen Itza, the victors are shown decapitating the losers to spill blood for the gods. Just as each morning once again brought the sun back up from its perilous night journey through the Underworld, the conflict between life and death was played out in the ball game. For the Maya, blood sacrifice was necessary for the survival of both gods and people, sending human energy skyward and receiving divine power in return. Through the sacrifice of players, human blood was supplied regularly to nourish the gods. In addition, by ritualizing and closely controlling this recurring obligation, the priests and rulers may have avoided the need to engage in actual warfare to sustain their world order.

Rattle in the Form of a Ball Player
This clay rattle was taken from Nopiloa, where many figurines have been discovered in burial sites. It is made of pinkish-white clay, and there is a hole in the right shoulder from which the rattle could be suspended. It wears the protective bumper necessary to play the game. Many Veracruz Classic period stone bumpers of the type the figurine wears have been found at many sites. These intricately carved stone bumpers are replicas of the protective bumpers made of wood and fiber that the players wore to absorb and deflect the impact of the heavy ball.

Surviving bumpers are ceremonial and were carved from single blocks of very hard stone, and decorated with complex geometric images of animals and humans. Small, blade-like stone pieces, called hacha, were attached to the bumpers and may have served as team identifiers or markers on the ball court. Later they may have been replaced by the more functional palma, a tall, crescent-shaped piece which provided some chest protection. When wearing such a bumper, a player stood poised between life and death, his fate determined by the game and the cosmic forces he represents.

1 Mary Ann Miller, The Art of Mesoamerica from Olmec to Aztec (London, Thames and Hudson, 1996), 92-94. Return to Text

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